On Campus

School is dehumanizing (No, really!)

Why mass education's "you get what your earn" philosophy leads to university students feeling like livestock

I talk with a lot of people who are responsible for grading – professors, instructors, and TAs. Almost everyone hates it. It isn’t only that the work they grade is frequently poor, or more often average (by definition most of it has to be “average,” no?) it’s that they know, even as they grade and assign students the marks they’ve earned, that a vocal minority of them is going to be clamoring for attention and reconsideration just as soon as those grades get out.

Some students genuinely believe they deserve higher grades for their work (and implicitly that they are better students than they really are) and this leads to questions about entitlement and perhaps grade inflation. But there are also many students who feel some special factor should be taken into account. My relationship just ended and I’m really broken up about it. I tried really hard but then I just couldn’t finish on time. I work a lot of hours a week and I can’t study very often. The excuses of this sort are legion. And believe me, graders don’t care. Almost without exception they’ll fall behind a professional mantra – “you get the grade you earn” – and that’s just the end of the discussion. Like almost everyone else, I tend to accept that philosophy as inherently just. Of course you get the grade you earn, and why should things work any differently? It’s always sad to hear some student’s hard luck story, and some are genuinely sympathetic cases, but surely that shouldn’t count for anything.

But lately, I’m not so sure.

There’s something very attractive about the idea that people get what they earn – no more and no less. But in practice the world doesn’t really work this way. All kinds of people have far more than they’ve really earned (from some perspectives, that includes everyone lucky enough to live in a developed nation) and we recognize in any number of contexts that the operative test shouldn’t be what’s earned, but rather what’s needed. Public charity works on that philosophy, certainly, but so does family, and friendship. It’s a sign that people care about us, when their first reaction isn’t to ask if we’ve earned something but rather if we need it. I’ve resisted using the term “deserve” so far because that’s really the operative issue, right? According to some attitudes, what you earn is, by definition, what you deserve. But according to others, you can deserve something merely because you need it.

As I think about the things I have or have been given over the years, I realize that many of the things I cherish most I haven’t earned. In fact, it’s a rare and special joy when people offer me their help or extend some courtesy without waiting to ask if I’ve earned it. Hitchhiking is one example, for me. There’s something remarkable about just throwing yourself on the kindness of strangers and discovering, by some miracle, that it actually works and you can get where you’re going. And doesn’t a free meal taste so much better than one you’ve paid for? It isn’t the money that you save – it’s the idea that someone is feeding you just because they care. And what about our natural fondness for second (or third, or fourth) chances? It’s one thing to believe in someone when they’ve never let you down. It’s another thing entirely to give them another chance when they have. We recognize that there’s something special and important in that trust – we understand the value in feeling that someone believes in us, whether or not we’ve really done anything to “deserve” it. We know that trust can be redeeming, when we offer it to other people.

All of these examples are of experiences that I’d called “humanizing.” That is, these are times when other people don’t stop to ask what you’ve earned or what you can pay, but rather recognize your worth as a human being and simply give you the benefit of the doubt on that basis. We need that! There isn’t anything wrong with it, and in fact the world would be an awful and cold and terrible place without it. There isn’t any special reason or merit to this bullshit about how “you get what you earn.” Life doesn’t really work that way and in fact it never has worked that way, except in some limited contexts. We all rely on favors and kindness and trust. It isn’t a failure of “the system” that we need to do so. Rather it is the system.

One of the largest problems in education today – perhaps the single biggest problem – is that it’s become so mechanical and systematic and production-oriented that students are processed like livestock. Even faculty feel dehumanized. I’m not really advocating that every individual student’s life and issues be taken into account when it comes to grading, and deadlines, and schoolwork. I know full well that isn’t practical or possible. My goal here isn’t to suggest every grader and instructor should take this into account, but rather to point out the problem.

Not every student who shows up with a sob story is simply desperate for a grades boost. Maybe some are hoping for that, as a secondary objective, but it isn’t merely the grade that stings. It’s the utterly dehumanizing environment of an institution that truly does function, in every particular, on the “you get what you earn” philosophy. Rigid rules. No exceptions. We genuinely don’t give a damn who you are or what your life is like, now just take a number and get in line because there are 30,000 other people here just like you. And who the hell wants to live like that? It isn’t any wonder students rebel against it. Part of it might be grades-grubbing, sure. And maybe some of it is false entitlement. But I firmly believe a lot of it is simply backlash and frustration at an environment that is so determined to apply objective standards to human worth and achievement that it bleeds all the humanity out of the picture.

I think I’ll have some more tangible suggestions come out of this for next entry, but I’ve run too long already. For now, I’d encourage students (and people who care about them) to self-monitor any feelings of frustration, and to be alert to them in people around you. Understanding where those feelings come from is most of way towards solving them – and perhaps grades aren’t really the issue. Certainly we’d all like better grades sometimes. We’d all like to succeed more at school – or perhaps I should say, “earn” more success. But when things don’t go our way, is it only the result, or is it the fact that absolutely no one seems to give a damn? Unfortunately, in this world, the “you get what you earn” manta (sometimes known as “you get what you deserve” – by poor souls who don’t understand there’s a difference) is simply a throw away justification for not caring.

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